News Reports

Covid-19: The report card can come later

So I spied a queue of people at 10pm last night in my neighbourhood. Not at the supermarket, but the bubble tea shop next to it. Not of middle-aged people, but young people. I wondered at first if the authorities should have given the small F&B outlets time to pack up and close shop rather than a 23.59 deadline. I now think it’s wiser to lock down quickly, given the Singaporean penchant to have a last quick fix, like they did when bars were about to close. 

The aunty at the 7-Eleven doesn’t know if the 24 hour joint is affected; she says “management’’ hasn’t called. A hawker I know has moved to do zhi char at another coffeeshop because he doesn’t know when he can re-open his stall at the nearby hawker centre which has been closed for renovations since February. 

Residents who had been waiting impatiently for it, as well as the wet market, thought it would re-open for business when the new signboard came up three weeks ago. They (we)  thought wrong. Buying groceries now is expensive; if you do any marketing, you will know that the price of red onions and garlic have gone up, whether “loose’’ or packed. Buying take-away food, which also gives you a chance to breathe the outside air, is time-consuming.  

Can we take another six weeks of life at home?

I don’t just mean the impact of immobility and lack of social interaction. The better-educated and white collar types can still work from home. But I hope that those who make a living out of face-to-face work or people-to-people contact will be able to ride out the period. That wage support scheme had better work properly to put money into people’s hands. Right now, everyone has $600 extra. For some, it’s a lifeline. The money for the self-employed and the freelancers had also better be easy to access. Abusers should be weeded out, yes, but let’s not pull out the roots of the rest as well. 

It’s tempting to find someone or something to blame for the current debacle we are in. Finger-pointing has started. I have always maintained that we have an efficient and effective government. I still do. It gives the word and it’s all systems go. Now the question is whether it “gives the word’’ too late. In other words, the timing of its judgment calls should itself be judged. 

Things would go a lot easier for the G if it is harder on itself. It cannot be ignorant of the unhappiness of Singaporeans who have to contend with new rules every other day or so or see the country spotlighted as a case study of where things went wrong. The unhappiness isn’t the result of having to toe the line on circuit breaker measures, but about the uncertainty of a path out of the outbreak. 

It doesn’t help when ministers keep insisting that they are doing everything in a calibrated, systematic, strategic, evidence-based, scientific, balanced and rational approach. This is a G which prides itself on being forward-thinking, but looks like it’s playing catch-up.

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A little more humility would go a long way. Please don’t say things like “we already warned against complacency’’ or “we already said it will get worse before it gets better’’. We expect leaders to lead firmly from the front, and to be frank about admitting that good intentions don’t necessarily lead to good outcomes. 

I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t read this exposition in ST weighing the G’s handling of the outbreak. To be kind, I would say this was intellectualising the G response with expert input.

 I gagged when I saw this paragraph on building additional dorms. 

With attention at the time focused elsewhere, especially with the flurry of Singaporeans returning home from abroad having to be kept apart from the rest of the population to prevent the spread of the virus, it is doubtful that the public would have appreciated the need to peremptorily expend huge resources to rehouse workers from dormitories at the time. 

Says who? 

I wish the media had chased down this elusive Commissioner of Foreign Employee Dormitories (whom I don’t know exists but should), or talked directly to dormitory operators on whether they had quarantine plans in place in case of an outbreak of infectious diseases. Which they are supposed to have. They could also have picked up on Manpower Minister Josephine Teo’s point about employers “yelping’’ at the cost of better living conditions in dormitories. Instead, the commentary has experts saying that the G is doing right by “thinning the dorms’’. Whoever thought that this was wrong anyway? 

The commentary also attributes the outbreak among foreign workers to a “superspreader’’ event which couldn’t have been foreseen. I choked. This is a known unknown and the G has plenty of Sars experience to fall back on. 

I couldn’t quite wrap my head around what Mrs Teo said at the press conference yesterday about not acting earlier on dormitories. I tried to rationalise her answer like this: They were already infected but only started showing signs later, and dorms were told up hygiene standards. But there was simply no way to do much with dorms as work was still going on. It’s got to be a total measure. 

Except that some people were pointing out that the cramped dorm conditions have been highlighted for years as possible virus incubation sites. 

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Now, about masks.

I was one of those who was totally in sync with the G’s early mantra to wear a mask only when sick. I shut my ears to others who cautioned otherwise. In hindsight, which is perfect or nearly so, I wonder if the mantra has less to do with scientific evidence and more to prevent a run on the mask stockpile which could be depleted. After all, you hear nothing about a mask shortage these days when it is mandatory to wear one. That stockpile seems to have been replenished. 

But again, that commentary got to me. 

One expert likened the wearing of surgical masks in the early days to people wearing motorcycle helmets everywhere they go.

“Does the helmet protect one from head injury? The answer is yes. But why does one not wear it to, say, FairPrice to shop? Because we perceive our risk of getting a head injury from grocery shopping to be very low,” he said.

“Similarly, when there is very little transmission, wearing a face mask is similar to wearing a motorcycle helmet while buying groceries. We need to manage or perceive risk in an objective way.”  

I don’t think a motorcyclist expects to be hit by a car while buying groceries. 

The commentary goes on to say that with mandatory masking now “ironically, it has been an uphill task to get everyone to comply, and it has not been hard to spot people without masks in public’’. 

Why ironic when people were berated for stocking up on masks or wearing one in the early days? 

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I agree that we, the people, have to bear some responsibility for the spreading of the outbreak and we should be supportive of any move to contain the virus. But I don’t think that the G should get off so easily too. We can talk about what the G did right or wrong, but it is pointless to do so now. I am actually surprised that ST even tried to do this “weighing” when we’re not out of the woods yet. 

The public accounting can come later. It should include not just what the G did from the setting up of the ministerial taskforce onwards, but other features of the Singapore system as well. 

Would the G, in hindsight, insist that it did everything right? That would be too arrogant methinks. 


Further reading

© 2022 Bertha Henson

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